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Posted on June 7, 2002 (5761) By Rabbi Yaakov Menken | Series: | Level:

“And He humbled you, and caused you to feel hunger, and [then] He fed you the Manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, in order to make you realize that not by bread alone does man live, but by all that comes from the mouth of G-d does man live.” [8:3]

Our ancestors, surviving at G-d’s hand for forty years, learned a lesson of incomparable value. We know that we have physical needs. But do we realize that our spiritual side has needs as well, without which we cannot flourish?

We live in a world where the physical appears to be everything. We have jobs in order to “make a living.” Food, clothing, shelter, car — and a two week vacation in the Bahamas — constitute a “living.” G-d? Religion?

So American Judaism is relegated to an occasional weekend activity. In so doing, American Jewry makes a critical error. A lack of spiritual life is harmful for anyone, and especially for Jews. Cult movements across America exploded in the 70’s and 80’s, filling their ranks with college students desperate for “spiritual fulfillment.” Though Jewry is but 3% of the US population, one-third to one-half of the cultists were young Jews.

In the Talmud, Tractate Brachos 61b, Rebbe Akiva compares a Jew without Torah to a fish out of water. The Rabbis taught: at one time, the evil kingdom (namely, the Roman Empire) made a decree that the Jews could not study Torah. Papos ben Yehudah discovered Rebbe Akiva gathering congregations together and teaching Torah in public. He said, “Akiva! Are you not scared of the government?”

Rebbe Akiva replied, “I will give you a parable. To what can our situation be compared? To a fox walking on the bank of a river, who saw fish in the water darting from place to place. He asked the fish, “Why are you fleeing?” The fish replied, “Because of the nets that people use to catch us.” So the fox said, “Would you like to come up on the dry land? You and I will live together, just as your fathers lived with mine.” Asked the fish, “Are you the one that they call the clever animal? You are not clever, but a fool! If we are afraid here, where we live, how much more so would we be in a place where we die!”

“So it is with us, who are sitting and studying Torah, which says (Deuteronomy 30) ‘for it is your lives and the length of your days.’ So would we be if we were to get up and leave it,” concluded Rebbe Akiva.

They [the Rabbis] said, it was not long before they captured Rebbe Akiva and imprisoned him, and they captured Papos ben Yehudah and placed him into the same cell. Rebbe Akiva said to him, “Papos! What brings you here?” He replied, “Happy are you, Akiva, who was captured over words of Torah! Woe is to Papos, who was captured over vain foolishness!”

We are proving the truth of Rebbe Akiva’s words. It doesn’t happen immediately; it takes a generation or two. Soon enough, like a fish out of water, the Jewish community withers without Jewish education and practices.

In Jewish communities around the world, “continuity” has become the buzzword. Reacting to surveys showing incredible rates of assimilation (drying fish), various Jewish organizations are acting to “ensure the survival of the Jewish people.” Even in Israel, the rate of Yerida (emigration) has become quite frightening – one wit commented that the fourth-largest Israeli population center is Brooklyn, NY. Yet for years, they invested in bigger cultural activities, more institutions — rarely with education.

Now, that is changing. It is changing because Judaism isn’t a culture, it’s a religion. You don’t ensure its survival with dances, community centers, or memorials. You make it blossom with religious practices and Jewish education. Those same surveys show a clear linkage between Jewish education, and Jewishly active adults. The road to Jewish survival, and growing and flourishing Jewish life, is a solid commitment to Judaism and Jewish learning. Without these, Judaism dies.

The truth is that, whether or not we admit it, this works for individuals as well. Religion is no hallucinogen. It’s as necessary as any vitamin. A recent study, published in the LA Times, showed that religious people find greater satisfaction and less stress in their lives. In Israel, they discovered that the charedim — many of whom, as Jerusalem Post columnist Jonathan Rosenblum so gently put it, have not yet reaped the benefits of exercise and a healthy diet — nonetheless have a lower rate of heart disease and a longer lifespan.

“And you shall place these words upon your hearts, and upon your souls, and you shall tie them for a sign upon your hands, and they shall be Totafos between your eyes; and you shall teach them to your children, to speak of them when sitting in your house, when walking on the way, when lying down, and when arising; and you shall write them upon the doorposts of your houses and in your gates; in order that your days be increased, and those of your children, upon the land which G-d has sworn to your fathers to give them, like the days of heaven upon the earth.” [11:18-21]

Homes filled with Torah are the building blocks that support the Jewish community — and they are also homes filled with life. And who wouldn’t want more life?